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by Israel (Robert) J. Aumann


In the last few months I was asked many times if game theory can shed some light on the Middle East in general and more so specifically regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict. I must make one remark first:

The treatment of the refugees (of the Disengagement Plan) is a national disgrace. Many of the refugees from Gush Katif and northern Shomron are still in hotels, even now, almost six months after the expulsion, and without the most basic conditions. Most of them are not yet in permanent housing, or even in reasonable temporary housing. There is no work, the children are in despair, and there have been some suicide attempts. Many families, and maybe even most, have not seen one agora of compensation, and those who have received are spending it on daily food.

We're not talking about an enemy here, we aren't talking about lawbreakers but about people who produce, who built model communities and who have now lost everything. And yet everybody ignores it. The media and everyone else. Nobody hears a word of it, nobody gives it any attention. I, for one, am not silent and will not be silent.

I do not know how the treatment [of the expellees] affects our national resilience. And I'm not talking about the expulsion itself - but just about the treatment of those who were expelled. It's not clear whether this is being done purposely to give the message that Zionism is not worth it and [people] might as well stop engaging in it as quickly as possible -- or just out of criminal negligence. And I don't know which is worse.

Now, to our issue: What can we learn about our country from game theory? The basic insight is that we must simultaneously look at the situation from all angles. Most of us want security and peace but that is only one side. What does the other side want? Is it the same thing? This is not entirely clear. Why is this important? What do we care about their desires? This is critical. There are situations where everybody wants to cooperate. The problem is that every side is apprehensive of the other. This was more or less the prevailing situation during the Cold War: Both sides wanted non-belligerency, nobody was interested in a hot war and both sides were wary of the other attacking. In this kind of situation there is much room for concessions. There are other situations where there isn't a desire to cooperate. Examples of this are Napoleon's France who was not interested in peace, nor was Hitler's Germany in the 1930s.

In these situations, peace wasn't the main goal and every concession was perceived as weakness... in such a situation, concessions achieve the exact opposite of what they were meant to achieve when both sides are interested in peace. They encourage the aggressive side to demand and receive more and more and base the perception that the rope can be stretched further and further. Eventually the rope tears and there is a war in conditions far worse than what would previously have transpired, before the concessions.

What is the situation in our arena? I'm not sure. On the other side, the Arabs no doubt have good-willed people. They want to coexist with us peacefully. The question is how many of them are there and who are they? What situation are they in? Are these people leaders and can they set the tone? I suspect that the answers to these questions aren't entirely encouraging. I suspect that the opinions of those that want to live peacefully with us, that this is their goal, are in the minority and definitely do not lead the other side. I am talking only of their intentions. It is important for us to know the intentions of the other side.

The wretched Oslo Agreement includes a clause in which the Palestinian Authority agreed to stop the unbridled incitement in their schools against Israel and the Jews. This clause was never fulfilled and the incitement only became wilder and wilder every year. Are we to blame for this? Of course we are. We never demanded the enforcement of this clause. It's as if it didn't matter to us; we didn't hear about it or read about it and it wasn't even a public issue for us. It [the incitement] is much worse than terrorism or Qassam rockets. The children that learn in school that Israel must be wiped off the map -- those little children will soon grow up. In not too long a time they will grow up and lead. The children of Oslo are already grown up and leading and we are perpetuating this situation and worsening it.

A correct assessment of the situation must take into account:

A) The intentions of the other side and how these intentions influence their actions and reactions to our actions. Their goals, this is what must interest us first and foremost.

B) How can we influence the intentions of the other side in order to advance our goals? In these two areas we have failed. By our actions, we have only encouraged them to adopt more and more terror and we aren't doing anything to moderate their intentions.

Another insight game theory has with relation to our conflict has to do with what is known as "returning games". The principle is that prolonged interaction attracts and can be used to foment cooperation that cannot be fruitful without this situation (of interaction). A one-time meeting does not fulfill potential opportunities for cooperation but a prolonged interaction can have mutual interests. The return to the game creates the opportunity for punishment and when there is such a possibility, the punishment need not be enacted but the possibility of it being enacted creates a positive momentum. Therefore, prolonged interaction can bring about cooperation because at any stage, both sides know that there are future rewards and punishment for not following and playing by the rules.

We must have real and true patience. The other side must realize and internalize this. The Arabs always said that they have time, and they can wait until we disappear, whether in ten, twenty or fifty years. Our problem is that we don't have time. The future is less important to us. We are in a rush. We want peace now. We really want peace now. The future is distant. We say and think in ourselves that the situation cannot go on like this, something must be done. So we go and destroy beautiful settlements, thriving and productive settlements, sacrificing hundred of people on the altar of "something must be done".

The very act of running crazedly after the longed-for peace is precisely what distances it from us. Israel's mad pursuit of peace is precisely that which is pushing it further away.

Our interest rate is too high. If we had time and patience, if we understand and can, in fact, continue like this and if we convince the other side that this is so, and if we ourselves are ready and willing to accept this, then maybe we really will receive the desired peace and even peace now. He who wants peace now will not receive peace ever. He who has patience can wait, demonstrate it and this will make the other side internalize this -- he will be the one giving peace a chance.

This was delivered during the Opening Ceremony of The 6th Annual Herzliya Conference, January 21, 2006, by Prof. Israel (Robert) J. Aumann, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, Center for the Study of Rationality, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Some of the translation from the Hebrew is by Hillel Fendel; the rest of the text is from the translation published by the Herzliya Conference, ( 1394&CategoryID=215).


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